Monday, April 29, 2013

Christian Origins: 6. Prophesy Fulfilled or Midrash

6. Prophesy Fulfilled or Midrash

Jesus of Nazareth is supposed to have fulfilled various Old Testament prophesies during his life on earth. The Gospel of Mark alludes to many of these. The Gospel of Matthew is more explicit, often citing chapter and verse.

Unfortunately, these claims are post-hoc at best and often of dubious nature. Consider the prophecy in Matthew 1:22-23.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
The reference is to Isaiah 7:14 which supposedly predicts the birth of Immanuel. However, in reality, this passage is about Isaiah giving Ahaz, king of Judah a sign. There is no indication here that it is about Immanuel a.k.a Jesus who would be born seven centuries later!

Mark's passion narrative is full of references to the old testament and prophesies fulfilled. Only, the originals in the old testament often have no indication that they are prophesies.

Did Mark not know that people would not realize that the Passion narrative was extracted from Psalms and Zachariah and the suffering servant of Isaiah? Did Mark not know that people would look up Isaiah and figure out that there is something wrong with his claims?

So, what is going on here? It has been suggested that what Mark is doing is constructing new stories by drawing on various parts of scripture, not necessarily related. This reinterpretation and redaction of old stories goes by the name, Midrash.

A very generous understanding would be that the Gospel writers were perhaps not trying to pull a fast one with their claims of prophesy fulfillment. They were just writing stories with theological significance rather than literal history. Some scholars for instance see the Gospel of Mark as a meta-parable.[1] But it can't be disputed that they were redacting their sources which included the Old Testament.

Matthew is far more literal than Mark, explicitly referring to verses in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which the Gospel writers seem to have relied on) and claiming fulfillment of prophecies when Mark often only alludes to them. Thus, according to Matthew, Jesus was named Immanuel, spends his infancy in Egypt, goes to live in Capernaum, rides into Jerusalem on two donkeys simultaneously and so on; all of these in fulfillment of prophecies. Matthew is clearly expanding on the details of Mark, making the references to the Septuagint explicit. Matthew is clearly taking liberties with Mark's stories.

This style of writing puts the Gospels outside the genre of ancient history. In fact, Luke is the only canonical Gospel writer who seems to be making the claim that he is attempting to record history. However, he cites no sources (though he does mention that there are some sources) and seems to be redacting either Mark and Q or Mark and Matthew without bothering to mention that that is what he is doing, not the signs of a good historian, even for ancient times!

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Interpolations]


[1] John Dominic Crossan, "The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus", HarperOne (2012).

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